We had not planned on a black bear bashing our ice cooler at our 40th Wedding Anniversary Family Reunion but it happened near Ely, the “canoe capitol” of northeastern Minnesota.
I was a teacher for 33 years, 17 at Welch Junior High in Ames, Iowa, where the kids knew I liked fishing and canoeing. In 1970, an almost 20-year adventure began of taking boys and girls on canoe trips to the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) and Quetico Park in Ontario, Canada. My three sons and daughter all loved to go with groups of sixteen to eighteen teenagers.
Happily, my kids were left with good memories of portaging between blue lakes, evening campfires, and lots of good eating. So for our family reunion their first thought was … the Boundary Waters!
My wife Carolyn and I took an exploratory trip to resorts that would allow camping. We camped and drove for two days from camp to camp, finally settling on Whispering Pines Lodge and Campground, 23 miles northwest of Ely on Highway 116, also known as the Echo Trail.
Questionnaires were sent to our four children and my brother’s four children, all of whom had canoed with the Welch Junior High Wilderness Voyageurs. The questions were the same given to kids years ago before accepting them as canoe trippers. It was serious then and nostalgic now. They mixed memories and fun.
Our serious questions were: how many could come; how many wanted to portage; who had tents and sleeping bags and who needed them. Those who had forgotten how to put together a food pack wanted to shop and pack in Ely. That’s good if you have a small group. If not, turn your group over to an outfitter, who is very efficient. I wanted to relive my days with the school kids so I surveyed preferences and packed the food.
We settled on two days in the Boundary Waters. Our reunion was but a week, and we wanted to save time to visit, go to the Dorothy Molter Museum, the International Wolf Center and, of course, do a little shopping.
Two days on canoe trails can be a hardship, if essentials are forgotten. Salt, tent flies, ground cloths, a frying pan, fish mix for breading, toilet paper, matches, literally dozens of small items are essential. There is, after all, no corner grocery in the Boundary Waters.
I piled my old Chevy pickup full of campstoves, a miniature kayak, food packs and ice chests, and stacked canoes on top. I went two days early to check the main camp site again and see the first portages to make sure there were no surprises to spoil the canoe campers’ two days. The canoe route lay up the Nina-Moose River to Agnes Lake.
Just before the anniversary date, 25 people flooded into the Big Lake campsite from North Carolina, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Iowa. Everyone enjoyed hiking trails, fishing, family meals and visiting around crackling campfires. The younger ones spent most of each day at the beach with parents watching from lounge chairs in front of the lodge.
The two-day canoe trip went off without a hitch in good weather. Those who stayed behind satisfied the little ones’ desire to be “wilderness” campers by sleeping in tents overnight. Their campsite was on an island in Big Lake. One of my sons “planted” arrowheads among rocks and there were some very excited little finders.
Our last nights in Big Lake Camp were lively. I brought tapes of old time radio favorites; Inner Sanctum, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow and The Whistler. Every night my granddaughters asked to have the lights out and listen to another one. Just as The Shadow was exploring, “what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” ice chests began to clatter. Our bear was visiting again.
We yelled and banged pots and Wendy, a daughter-in-law, screamed. After feeding her six-month-old baby boy in their van, she stepped out into the pitch dark to go to her tent and the bear introduced himself from three feet away with a polite, “Whuff, Whuff!” Later the lodge staff captured the bear in a huge barrel trap on wheels and took him fifty miles away.
We believe the Ely area was a perfect “fit” for a reunion of people who love the outdoors and the Boundary Waters. We won’t wait long to do it again.
About the Author
Dale Geise retired from teaching in 1990 to build a log house in the country. Now he has time to enjoy places like the Niobrara River in Nebraska where the family will canoe this summer.